What first comes to mind when we recall David Lean’s film of The Passionate Friends is, to steal a quote from Monty Python, the curtains. No, nothing to do with hanging draperies in some Pythonesque Arthurian England. The curtains are seen at TPF’s beginning, during the credit sequence, right after that half-nude guy bangs the J. Arthur Rank gong: fluttering in a sunlit window, their sheer fabric imprinted with leafy shadows cast by unseen foliage. It’s a curiously feminine image. It connotes genteel drawing rooms, late afternoon teas, the hush that falls over thick carpeting. Not the sort of image associated with a director best known today for blond, blue-eyed Peter O’Toole gadding about the Arabian desert in the ultimate boy’s adventure movie. No drawing-room, tea-sipping, curtain-hanging aficionados need apply there.
Still, for us, when we think of Lawrence of Arabia, we again think of fluttering fabric. Honest, we do. It’s that scene when Lawrence poses atop a train wreck, a preening colossus bestriding a mass of tangled metal, strutting his blond gorgeousness for his cheering Arab troops. Lean shoots the scene from a low angle, the sun’s slanting rays haloing O’Toole’s gleaming head as his white sheik’s costume flickers and flashes in the afternoon breeze. What captures the sight here is the cloth’s immaculate sheen—never mind that no one’s had a wash for weeks; Lawrence’s robe is as pristine as the habit of a novice nun’s, and, for the moment, as pure. Yet watch how the cloth moves around him, twining itself about his body, then streaming free, like a woman’s unbound hair. The image feels almost tactile, capturing a sensual quality within Lawrence himself (which, to his folly, he can’t admit to). However ‘big’ Lean made his movies, he always retained that palpability of small, concrete things (think of Bill Sikes’ frightened dog clawing the door in Oliver Twist). Taken together, such small things coalesce into great images. If viewers treasure LOA, it’s not just for its thundering camel charges or explosions; it’s how O’Toole, in close-up, sensuously puckers his lips before he blows out that famous match that leads to that famous jump cut that brings up that famous shot of dawn on the desert, the sun a furious ball of gold melting across the sands. The cut, the juxtaposition, the cinematography, are justly celebrated, but it’s O’Toole’s sweet, slow pucker (as good as any by Lauren Bacall) that sets it all up.
However, we were talking about the curtains. As we noted above, they’re suggestively feminine—what you might see in a 1940s ‘woman’s film.’ One where Greer Garson enters her tastefully appointed parlor, eyes sweeping across the immaculately laid tea table, a delicate hand prinking the frills of her dress, as she calls out to the maid to remember, please, to close the curtains because Mrs. So-and-So is sensitive to sun. And TPF can certainly be classed as a woman’s film (it was even retitled One Woman’s Story for the American market). As its quaintly Victorian-sounding title suggests, TPF centers on the subjects of passion and friendship, domains of personal feeling round which women’s films traditionally revolve. In TPF’s case, the passionate friendship involves that staple of female-oriented cinema, the eternal triangle. Rather than the grand sweep of history (the Desert Revolt, the Irish Uprising, the Russian Revolution), Lean focuses on a small-scaled, intimate drama of a woman struggling to sort out her feelings between her lover and her husband. The sort of story that, if you will, takes place behind the curtains.
Mention Lean and the woman’s film—indeed, mention Lean and the eternal triangle—and the movie that comes up is 1945’s Brief Encounter, one of the most swoonily romantic films ever made (Lean didn’t just make ‘guy’ films, you know). Like TPF, BE also focused on a woman torn between two men: between a placidly happy marriage to a dull buffer and a sudden, overwhelming passion for another dull buffer (albeit a more sexually attractive one, as embodied by manly Trevor Howard; he has a similar role in TPF). Probably what everyone remembers about BE, beyond Celia Johnson’s beautiful, anguished eyes, is its constant playing of Rachmaninoff on the soundtrack. If ever a film means to wring the heart, it’s BE with its use of Rachmaninoff. Oh, the exquisite angst of it all. In contrast, TPF has no such handy heart-wringing aid; it’s entirely Rachmaninoff-free. (Whether you think this lack is a detriment or a blessing depends entirely on your tolerance of Rachmaninoff.)
Perhaps that lack may explain, in part, TPF’s low profile in the Lean canon. It doesn’t twist the heart muscles; instead, it’s a cool, detached, meticulously crafted work on such messy subjects as passion, adultery, and rage. Released in 1949, and coming after Lean’s Coward and Dickens’ adaptations, but before his big epics, TPF seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. John Orr even calls TPF a “forgotten” film, one of three Lean made between 1948 and 1952 with his then-wife, the actress Ann Todd. Some critics have compared TPF to BE; Michael Sragow calls TPF “an upscale version” of BE, referring to the later film’s posh settings, such as the huge, ornate mansion where the well-to-do heroine lives, or the Swiss mountain resort where she holidays. But the differences are vast. True, both films deal with an adulterous affair recalled in flashback. But Lean uses in TPF a far more complex, more densely structured flashback series. Orr notes how TPF’s “multi-layered time frame” becomes a “meditation on time” itself. Time, in fact, is what TPF is about—not chronological time, but emotional time, that, “mixing memory and desire,” stirs up, if not T.S. Eliot’s dull roots, then a lot of other things. What in BE had been a linear recollection of the events in a love affair becomes, in TPF, a recurrent round of lovers meeting and re-meeting, in which, says Orr, “the world of desire is trapped in perpetual fantasies and actualities of re-union.” This remembrance of passion binds the film’s lovers into a karmic cycle of love and loss—always meeting, always separating, but never able to move on.
TPF‘s cyclical structure does demand that audiences pay attention to what’s going on. Its first half is a lengthy flashback into which a second flashback is embedded. The film begins as its heroine, Mary (Todd), leaves for a vacation at said Swiss resort, where her husband, the older, wealthy banker Howard Justin (Claude Rains), will later join her from his business trip (another recurrence in the film are the innumerable business trips Justin takes without his wife’s company). Once at the resort Mary finds herself recalling her last encounter nine years earlier, in 1939, with her former lover, Stephen Stratton, after her marriage to Justin. Yet within this ‘39 flashback Mary recalls an earlier meeting, a few years before her marriage, when she and Stephen were in love, but she had refused to marry him. From this earliest, idyllic flashback, the film goes back to 1939, when Stephen and Mary resume their affair, only to break it off (again) when Justin discovers their liaison. From thence we return back again—or, perhaps more accurately, forward—to the film’s second half in present time, Mary’s Swiss holiday, where she again meets Stephen, now himself married, and playing truant from his own business trip (he’s a biology professor visiting European universities). Although the couple merely spend an innocent day picnicking in the mountains, they’re discovered again by Justin, who’s returned from his trip unexpectedly early. Enraged at what he believes is his wife’s resumption of her affair, Justin institutes divorce proceedings, naming Stephen as co-respondent (which would at the time have been a great scandal for Stephen’s career and marriage). Mary’s desperation then leads her to a drastic decision to resolve her dilemma.
As our summary might indicate, audiences may find TPF, especially on a first viewing, a little difficult to follow (maybe one reason why it wasn’t a box office success; it’s not a film you can just walk into the middle of and quickly catch on). Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of which flashback you’re in at any particular moment. Orr suggests that the Swiss resort sequence could be a flash-forward, a “wish-dream of love’s reunion in a future time.” But the Swiss scenes are themselves a recollection—Mary, in a soundtrack voiceover, is recalling her Swiss vacation and what she views as her fateful re-encounter there with Stephen, and its consequences. Practically her first words on the soundtrack are, “I remember thinking”; throughout the film her voiceover is in the past tense. The entire film might be construed as a flashback, in which, like a series of Russian dolls, each flashback fits inside another, each one revolving around a meeting between Mary and Stephen. It’s as if Mary lives outside time, her existence locked in her memories, within what Orr calls her “rapture of oscillation” between her husband and her lover.
In structuring his plot not around chronology but the recollection of desire and its ‘eternal return,’ Lean makes every sequence, as Orr notes, “a perpetual present in which time itself is a labyrinth.” And labyrinths have a nasty way of thwarting forward motion. Nine years, and more, may have gone by, but Mary still finds herself brooding on Stephen. Indeed, if the return of desire structures the film’s narrative, it’s neurotic desire. Mary seems to want to alter or freeze time, to stave off its inexorable passage and change (during her picnic with Stephen, she even fantasizes him telling her that he’s never married). Lean captures this ‘frozen’ quality beautifully in the film’s pre-‘39 flashback, when Mary, after turning down Stephen’s proposal, runs away from him. Lean films her flight in gradually accelerating slow-motion: as Mary runs toward the camera, her speed paradoxically slows down, so that the image almost ends in a freeze-frame just before Lean cuts away. This slowing movement gives the moment a weightless, hallucinatory quality, heightened by Mary’s white dress floating in stillness; it’s like an arrested dream. The image carries a symbolic portent: as much as Mary tries to run away from her love, her flight is always halted; she’s always trapped by her desire just at the point of departure.
But why does Mary turn down Stephen in the first place? That may be the film’s thorniest point. As portrayed by Trevor Howard, Stephen is attractive, gentle, intelligent; he and Mary are soul mates (they constantly quote favorite bits of poetry to each other). He’s quite a catch. Yet Mary refuses him because, as she explains, she wants “to belong to myself.” The line is one of the few directly from the 1913 novel on which the film was based. Its author, H.G. Wells—yes, that H.G. Wells, the guy who wrote about Martian invasions and invisible men—often addressed issues of social and economic oppression in his novels (even his science-fiction ones), including what Richard Hauer Costa calls “the general problem of marriage—more exactly, the relation of one individual to another.” Wells used his story, of a woman pursuing an adulterous affair with one man after she deliberately chooses to marry another (for his money), as a means of examining the destructive and far-ranging effects of sexual jealousy. When Wells’ Mary (called Lady Mary) turns down Stratton’s proposal, her refusal, as Wells depicts it, is, in part, an issue of women’s independence—she doesn’t want to become Stephen’s jealously guarded possession (“Why should one have to tie oneself always to one other human being?” she asks). Her desire to maintain her emotional and sexual freedom, however, plunges her into a struggle for dominance between Stephen and Justin that only her suicide can resolve.
Almost none of Wells’ philosophical, moral, and political discourses appears in Lean’s film (which is just as well; had they been kept, TPF would have been as long as LOA). In adapting the novel, Lean and his scenarist, Eric Ambler, kept (and complicated) its flashback structure but pared the plot to its essential triangle. They also changed the narrator from Stephen to Mary and updated the story to contemporary (post-Second World War) times. But in updating the story from the era of the crusading ‘New Woman’ (Wells wrote his novel before British women had the vote) to the psychoanalytically inclined 1940s, the scenarists altered its emphasis. Mary’s refusal in the film is not based on a concept of female autonomy. She can’t give Stephen a reason for her wish for self-possession; instead, she seems afraid of commitment. When Stephen snappishly responds to her statement with, “Then your life will be a failure,” her reaction is to break into tears: “Why can’t there be love without this clutching and this gripping!” she sobs (another line spoken by the novel’s Lady Mary, but she speaks it with defiance). Mary’s own marriage to Justin is based on some vague notion of ‘love without demands’; in the ’39 flashback she breaks off her affair to stay with her undemanding husband. “Will you always want to belong to yourself?” Stephen asks her sadly. If Wells’ Lady Mary was the post-Victorian feminist (Wells partly based her on the writer Rebecca West), Lean’s Mary seems more the post-Freudian neurotic female, wavering between her desire for a strong man and to be left alone. Hence her arrested flight from Stephen; she can’t stay with him but she can’t run away. She’s doomed to repeat her trauma.
Repetition brings us back to time. And to the curtains. TPF is redolent with them. That first image of them, hanging in their perpetual window, with the perpetual shadows of offscreen vegetation cast across their white surface, suggests time caught in an unchanging landscape. But time does change, as do the curtains; they reappear at various key moments in the movie, their re-occurrence linking the story’s cyclical themes of desire and memory. Whenever we see them, we, too, are recalled to that first, calm view at the beginning, while noticing how they differ. Lean builds up his images as in a piece of writing—or perhaps as in a piece of music, in which motifs recur and echo throughout the work, uniting it, in our minds, into a resonant whole.
Yet TPF‘s curtain motif doesn’t come across as ‘literary,’ but as beautifully cinematic. They’re seen hanging in windows through which the film’s characters gaze, yearningly—as potent an image of blocked desire as we’ve seen. Lean orchestrates the progression of Stephen and Mary’s affair by the reappearance of such images. Note how, for example, in the 1939 flashback, after meeting a now-married Mary, Stephen stares out a window, his gaze fixed on an unseen distance, his eyes clouded by remembrance. The renewal of the couple’s affair in the ‘39 flashback is also heralded by a curtained window, where they stand, side by side, gazing out but not at each other. Near the end of the ‘39 flashback Stephen stands and looks at the window in Justin’s office, where a foreboding thunderstorm blows the curtains wildly into the room. Soon Mary will enter that room and break off the affair:
The hanging curtains also reappear in Mary’s hotel room in the Swiss resort episode, here draped across the french windows. Mary stands on the balcony, waving frantically to a departing Stephen. A moment later, she turns round and, pushing aside the curtains, comes back into the room, her face streaked with tears. What’s different about these shots is not just Mary’s expression of sorrowful regret; they’re a point-of-view sequence. The observer happens to be Justin, who, unbeknownst to Mary, is sitting in her hotel room, watching her wave to Stephen, taking note of her tears, and forming his own jealous conclusions:
And that brings us to Justin. And to his portrayer, Claude Rains, who gives the one genuinely great performance in the movie. We don’t wish to shortchange the extremely capable and charismatic Trevor Howard, nor cast aspersions on Ann Todd and her thoughtful performance in the movie’s central role. Todd, who was dubbed, per Orr, the “English Garbo” because of her blonde, ascetic features, was a fine, careful actress, but she lacked the reserves of sexual-spiritual ardor suggested by the Divine Swede. (One can wonder what the film would have been like had Garbo been cast at Mary. No doubt, she would have overpowered everything else—who would pay attention to curtains once Garbo was in the room?) Viewers whose knowledge of Rains is limited to his wittily cynical bon mots in Casablanca, or maybe to his improbable siring of Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man (we assume that Rains, a famously frugal man, did that one strictly for the paycheck), might find his performance in TPF a revelation. In a strange conjunction of actor and role, TPF’s truest moments of passion come via this short, aging, unprepossessing figure—which yet housed one of the great acting talents of the twentieth century.
The role of Justin was considerably beefed up from its literary original, probably to give Rains a juicier showcase for his skills. In the novel Justin is a shadowy, yet powerful menace, appearing in only a few scenes but exerting an unseen control. He’s still a powerful fellow in the film; his frequent business trips involve him in the huge ebb and flow of world events (in the ‘39 flashback, he’s overseeing business with German and Italy—countries that would soon be at war). He’s a man, as his divorce lawyer later explains, who plays to win (“One should never let the enemy know he’s being observed,” Justin comments dryly at one point). Just how he plays is demonstrated during a marvelous scene in the ’39 flashback, in which Justin, confronting Mary and Stephen after a supposed theater trip (she and Stephen actually spend the evening discussing her plans to leave Justin), taunts them with his unspoken knowledge of their affair. Offering to mix his wife a drink, he stands behind her and enunciates the one word: “Ice?” Rains drops the word like a stone into standing water, those long, narrow, old reptilian eyes of his calculating the effect. Actor and character meld here, both enjoying their mastery, both deliberately playing the scene as a scene. (Per Kevin Brownlow, Lean advised Rains that the scene should be played sadistically: “‘You’re having them on toast….You are, in a way, being very cruel.'” To put it mildly.)
“Ice?” Scroll forward to about the two-minute mark in the clip to view the scene referenced above:
But by building up Justin’s presence in the film, Lean gives him a seething inner life: We now see the feeling man beneath the faultless pose. Justin may be a world shaker in business, but behind the scenes he’s in torment—he can’t inspire his wife’s affection. Perhaps it’s because, unlike Stephen and Mary, who live by brief, recurring flashes of bliss, Justin lives in linear time. He’s usually seen leaving for or returning from one of his many trips, his life lashed to a schedule. His realization of his wife’s affair occurs when, in the midst of dictating to his secretary, he glances back and forth to the theater tickets Mary and Stephen were supposed to be using but left behind. Lean, who began his cinema career as an editor, shapes the scene as a visual correlative to Justin’s increasing suspicions. His cutting allows us to follow Justin’s train of thought: the camera alternates between close-ups of the tickets and of Justin’s face, each close-up becoming perilously closer, and larger, until we can clearly read the “8.0 P.M.” curtain time (as well as the aptly ironic title, “First Love”) on the ticket face. Along with his burgeoning knowledge of his wife’s infidelity, time itself seems to confront the older man—time that, for him, unlike for his wife and her lover, does not return:
And it’s this proud, reserved, controlled man, who believes he’s arranged the perfect companionate marriage for himself—and Rains’ portrayal of him—who slams home to us the desperate, unbearable grief of jealousy. Whatever of Wells’ lengthy socio-political analyses, or of Lean’s obsessively detailed craftsmanship, it’s all ripped away, like a bandage off raw skin, by the sheer blaze of anger that Rains can summon up. He gives us, simply, a human being in pain. Near film’s end (for readers unfamiliar with TPF, we warn that spoilers are ahead), Mary, estranged and living apart from Justin, comes, she says, to “appeal” to him. At first Justin is distantly polite, constrained by courtesy—does Mary have all she needs, he asks. But what Mary wants is for Justin to stop the divorce—for her former lover’s sake. And here Justin erupts—conscious only of wanting to wound, shatter, tear apart this woman who has so deeply hurt him: “I’d have been well satisfied with kindness and loyalty,” he snarls, “but it was the love one gives a dog, the kindness to a beggar, the loyalty of a bad servant!” (Suddenly Justin finds that he, too, has demands.) The scene is almost shocking to watch—Justin is no longer in control and he doesn’t bother to hide it; and Rains spits out the words, his finely timbred voice roughened with rage. But the most startling bit is when Rains turns away from the screen and acts with his back to the camera. He stands, bowed over, one shoulder twisted awry, like a marionette dangling from cut strings. It’s the kind of concrete, defining moment that, as we mentioned above, shows up in Lean: that skewed shoulder tells us more about Justin, his feelings, his psychic wound, than any words could—and who of us wouldn’t know what he feels?:
The source of Justin’s rage, as he contritely confesses, is that he’s done the most natural, yet saddest, because unreciprocated, thing—he’s fallen in love with his wife. Lean cuts to a reverse close-up as Justin speaks, and Rains conveys a terrible poignancy here, his face sharply aged by the deep, angular shadows used by Lean’s expert cinematographer, Guy Green. He’s now just a helpless, middle-aged man, whose carefully arranged and controlled life has been overthrown by the discovery of his own passion. However, his words fall on empty air, as Mary has rushed from the house. Lean finishes the scene with Justin’s own ‘curtain’ moment, as he gazes out the window, seeking his fleeing wife:
Perhaps it was the rage, and pain, they gave to Justin that made Lean and Ambler change the novel’s ending. Lean stages the film’s finalé in the London underground (or subway), which stands for both a literal and metaphorical descent into the underworld. He films the scene almost without dialogue, his juxtaposing of images—close-ups of Mary on the platform, of a sign announcing train arrivals, and of the tracks—conveying Mary’s decision to throw herself under an incoming train. (It may also be an allusion to BE’s near-suicide-by-train ending.) Unlike the novel, however, Mary does not kill herself, but is rescued by Justin, who literally pulls her back from the platform brink. The director’s ending is a drastic revision of Wells’ view of possessive human relationships. In their biography of Lean, Alain Silver and James Ursini call this final scene a “movement away…from precarious independence towards conformity,” presumably because Mary elects to go back to Justin. Perhaps—but whatever else, Lean’s ending suggests movement—trains, after all, are meant to take you somewhere. Justin’s rescue of Mary, and his gentle plea for her to come back “home” with him (“if you want to,” he humbly adds—Justin, as well as Mary, has been brought down to a new, more self-aware understanding), breaks Mary’s entrapment within her own memory—significantly, her voiceover recollection stops just before her last encounter with Justin; she apparently is now existing in the present; and her decision to return to Justin is one of motion: The film’s last image is of Mary and Justin walking toward the camera. It’s a subdued, touching, yet oddly hopeful ending.
As Ursini and Silver imply, Lean’s movie is much more conservative than its source novel. Its ending, with Mary returning to a husband she doesn’t love (presumably to make a go of their marriage), would not accord with Wells’ bleak view of marriage, jealousy, and human freedom. As his novelistic spokesman Stratton expresses it, sexual jealousy is at “the very heart of all our social jealousies,” underlying not only collective disruption but even strife between nations. In spite of its quaint title, the novel attempts to propose a radical transformation in all human relations—for Wells, jealousy was a root danger to the kind of idealized, one-world socialist utopia he promulgated in much of his fiction. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer, at least in TPF, an answer to this basic flaw of human nature. Perhaps the closest realization Wells comes to such a cleansing of our base passions is in his 1906 science-fiction novel, In the Days of the Comet, in which a comet’s passing over Earth induces a miraculous change in human beings, leading to peace on earth, good will towards men, and a system of open marriage for all. It’s a solution that, needless to say, remains within the realm of science-fiction.
In any case, we’ll take Claude Rains. Utopias may be nice; and radical reorganizations of human relations may be praiseworthy; and a life without pain may be desirable. But without the knowledge of pain there is no art; and without art there is no humanity. And Rains’ brilliance in TPF gives us the full scope of a particular, singular humanity, one that, while not embracing Wellsian solutions, is far more concrete to our own experiences. Philip Kemp wrote how Rains’ several film roles of cuckolded husbands (most notably Notorious) may have been close to his own situation in real life: an older man married (several times) to a younger woman, and perhaps dealing with the doubts, fears, and tangled jealousies such a situation might cause. If that’s the case, Rains’ genius in transmuting personal pain into artistic gold is especially moving, as well as admirable. Of course, if we had a painless utopia, we might not need art; but that’s like arguing we have no need of humanity, and what kind of bargain is that? If the experience of pain could give Claude Rains the capacity for his performance in TPF—and give the rest of us the ability to empathize with it—maybe that’s a bargain well worth having.
Brownlow, Kevin, David Lean: A Biography, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996
Costa, Richard Hauer, H.G. Wells Revised Edition, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985
Kemp, Philp, “Smooth as Old Cognac,” Sight and Sound, Issue #1, Volume 15, 2005
Orr, John, “Forgotten Lean: The Ann Todd Trilogy,” Senses of Cinema, Issue #47, April 2008
Silver, Alain and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films, London: Leslie Frewin Publisher, 1974
Sragow, Michael and Harlan Kennedy, “David Lean’s Rite of Passage,” Film Comment, Issue #1, Volume 21, 1985
Wells, H.G., The Passionate Friends (1913), London: Hogarth Press, 1986
BONUS CLIP: A modern trailer made for David Lean’s 1949 film of The Passionate Friends. Please note that the piano music heard on the trailer’s soundtrack is heard nowhere in the actual film: